Brattleboro's Inclusion Center holds post-election huddle

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BRATTLEBORO - Lots of questions loom as Donald Trump comes into power as our next Commander-In-Chief.

But local efforts for equality will remain as strong as ever, according to members of the community concerned most about the rights of people with disabilities.

"I'm actually a conservative Christian, so you can co-exist with all types of people in all types of areas," said Keith Plunske, advising against the "pigeon holing" of others. "I think people are going to find excuses to be discriminatory and do things that are just wrong. It's a good excuse when you unfortunately have a president-elect who has said such stupid things. You can't get past that."

On Thursday, Brattleboro Food Co-op General Manager Sabine Rhyne and Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell were invited to the basement of St. Michael's Episcopal Church, home to the Inclusion Center. People with disabilities meet and socialize there.

Julie Tamler, director of the Inclusion Center, said there will be a lot of changes in the United States.

"We don't know what it means but I know that a lot of people are feeling very stressed and very tense about it," she said of the election. "So I've asked a couple people from our community to come and talk with us about the future of our community. I just want everybody to know we are going to be OK. We have a great community and everybody is going to take care of each other."

The Inclusion Center has concerns about what might happen to the Americans with Disabilities Act with the new administration coming when Donald Trump steps into office. Trump had mocked a reporter with disabilities, according to news reports. His presidency also brings up questions on services, as he's mentioned wanting to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

People with disabilities work and shop at the co-op, Tamler said, calling it a "special place" as it's "very accessible."

"I don't know how you guys have been feeling but we certainly from the next morning after the election had a lot of people feeling very nervous, concerned, sad and worried," Rhyne said. "I think, of course, there's been a lot of difficulty coming to grips with how things came to the way that they did."

Rhyne said the co-op has always tried to create a warm and welcoming space. She described a sad and empty store the day after the election. She said people who came to the co-op were hugging and reassuring each other that they'd still be there for one another.

The day made Rhyne reflect on how the store and community interact.

"I've always talked about a web that we all connect ourselves through the community and learn things about each other and open our minds up to how people are or could be or have been," she said. "I mean, we just always make assumptions about people that are almost always proved wrong."

Rhyne said she now felt like making the most inviting community. Since the election, she noted people's coming together - especially in the Green Mountain State where outgoing Gov. Peter Shumlin and Governor-elect Phil Scott made a declaration calling for Vermont to be a sanctuary.

"It really felt good to know this is going way beyond what we know, but for me, it's a wake-up call that we just need to keep finding the love in our hearts and making sure we connect with everyone as much as we possibly can," said Rhyne.

She encouraged attendees to find joy in their lives.

Tamler suggested the possibility of the Inclusion Center creating posters advocating for kindness. Wondering whether there was any open wall space, Rhyne mentioned a kale poster.

"It's probably time to change that up anyway," she laughed. "I think that would be fun. I think that would be really great."

Gail Kennedy-Haines worried about an environment in which people were being targeted for any reason.

"It's hard not to catch that wave," she said. "It's really hard to maintain your sense of community and wellness because everybody is afraid that their piece of the pie is going to get eaten up. So I guess my thoughts are, how do we maintain this community we have in light of all the things that we fear most are going to happen as those things were pretty much promised in the President-elect's campaign rhetoric."

Kennedy-Haines urged "those of us in thick of it" to be mindful and said it will not be an easy country to live in for the next four years. Rhyne said people should also be vigilant and calmly stand up to people in disrespectful situations.

"It's important for everyone not to become hypocrites," said Plunske."A lot of people thought that Hillary [Clinton] would win and when she didn't then the people who are claiming all these feelings of 'let's be understanding' were then turning around and having conniptions about the thing."

One attendee worried whether the latest election results would prevent people from taking accountability in the future.

"I think one of the things that concerns me most about this election is kids who are growing up and seeing someone saying hateful and ignorant things, that person can become president apparently," said Joel Kaemmerlen. "I think it's all our responsibility to demonstrate leadership. I think that too often in front of developing minds, we say, 'Oh, I'm not going to get into it. I'm not going to say anything.' But you can't really stop democracy. Our elected officials are our elected officials but we can, as adults, provide an alternative for different types of behavior that a developing youth can see and model."

Accessibility has been a hot topic for the Select Board and town administration lately. A $30,000 allocation was recently approved for devices to assist with pedestrian safety. Sidewalks are going to be addressed in budget talks, with more funding proposed than in previous years. And the town's ADA and Traffic Safety committees keep plugging away on issues.

On behalf of the town government, Elwell said, "I view it as continuing what we've already been working on together and I hope that you've experienced that."

He mentioned Select Board members showing particular interest in making new police and fire facilities as accessible as possible.

"There's actually been aspects of that where we were meeting minimum standards of ADA and the Select Board says, 'We want to go a step beyond that,'" Elwell told the group. "So you have that level of support and concern at the elected level of our local government as well as an ongoing commitment among the staff to do the things we need to do to make sure the community is accessible. We face challenges here in terms of physical accessibility. We face challenges based on the age of the community and the age of the infrastructure."

No reports about discrimination or hateful acts in Brattleboro had come across Elwell's desk as of the meeting. But he urged vigilance.

"It doesn't end in participating in the democratic process," Elwell said. "Living together day to day and week to week, we need to be aware of things that are happening. I do think we have fortunately a well established foundation in Brattleboro for open-mindedness and togetherness, and being a welcoming community and addressing issues. We're not perfect but I'm confident that Brattleboro will continue to be a place where people can feel safe and should feel safe."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or @CMaysBR.


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